Family leave: Harmful to women...But helpful, on balance

Deborah Walker

September 21, 1992|By Deborah Walker

THE Family and Medical Leave Act, which may have been vetoed by President Bush by the time you read this, would increase discrimination against women by employers.

The legislation would force companies with 50 or more employees to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to female employees for having a child, and to male or female employees to care for a sick child, spouse or parent.

Businesses would have to retain the employee's health-care benefits over that period and guarantee that he or she would be able to come back to the same or a comparable job at the end of 12 weeks. Employers already have enough reasons not to hire a woman if there is an equally qualified man available. Statistics show that the "average" woman has a higher turnover rate than a man, is more likely to quit or obtain temporary leave from her job, and is more likely to move if her husband is relocated.

Because of this, businesses engage in what is called "statistical discrimination" -- they hire more men because, based on statistical averages, hiring men is less risky and less costly in the long run. To screen every woman individually to find whether she fits the profile of the "average" woman would cost more than a typical firm could afford.

Requiring businesses to grant family leave will eliminate one of the most important ways in which women can try to overcome this "statistical discrimination": through freedom of contract.

As unfortunate as it may be, a woman must prove to her prospective employer that she will be as productive as any comparable man the employer might hire. One way of proving this is through employment contract terms.

If a woman does not choose to have family leave as an option in her contract, her prospective employer will take note of that. In this way a woman can distinguish herself from the "average" woman, and enter the contest for a job on a more equal footing with a male applicant.

Since the family leave bill would, in essence, force employers and employees into a contract that neither party may want, women face an uphill battle in changing the statistical averages that make them less attractive employees than men.

Companies and their employees are the only ones in the position to decide if offering family leave as part of their benefit package will increase employee morale and productivity.

Several large corporations -- from IBM to American Express to Exxon -- and more than 100 smaller firms recently announced a voluntary plan to help families care for their children and aging family members. The plan includes new child-care centers and programs, training of child-care workers, and more services for the elderly in 44 locations nationwide. But the planning will be on the local level, close enough to solve the problems of real families.

It is private initiatives like this that we should encourage.

Government mandates such as the Family and Medical Leave Act only undermine private initiatives by taking both the choice and creativity out of the employment contract.

In so doing, jobs are lost, and employment discrimination is increased.

Deborah Walker is an associate professor in the College of Business Administration at Loyola University, New Orleans.

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